Beluga whales receive endangered status and lots of media attention

What do Hayden Panettiere and Sarah Palin have in common? Their celebrity status puts whales in the headlines. While the “Heros” actress uses her star power to bolster the fight against commercial whaling, the Republican VP candidate/Alaska governor/SNL guest has made a splash with her vigorous opposition to increased protection for the beluga whale of Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

The federal government listed the marine mammal as an endangered species on October 17—a move Palin called “premature,” questioning the science behind the decision. Not surprisingly, newspapers and websites big and small, local and international, devoted far more attention to this decision than is typically the case for federal listings (for comparison: Google News returns more than 800 stories about listing belugas, while only 220 or so articles turn up on the Bush administration’s unprecedented proposal earlier this month to list 48 Hawaiian species at one time). announced ‘Palin loses bid to block beluga whale protection.’ The U.K. Telegraph, ‘U.S. government defies Sarah Palin and declares beluga whale endangered,’ ran a picture of Palin, not the whale. 

Though news outlets are hyping the listing as a loss for Palin, there’s no doubt it’s a significant victory for Cook Inlet whales. Despite protections put in place nearly a decade ago, NOAA found that the population, down from 653 belugas in 1995 to 375 today, isn’t recovering.

The agency says the whales’ recovery is potentially hindered by:

•    strandings
•    predation by killer whales
•    disease
•    continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effectives on important beluga habitat
•    industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants
•    oil and gas exploration, development, and production

It’s that last item that particularly concerns Palin’s administration, which says the listing could obstruct offshore drilling in Cook Inlet (the U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed making leases available as early as next year). On the other hand, the listing could also affect renewable energy projects, such as a tidal power scheme Chevron is pursuing there.

Palin hasn’t said whether the state will sue the federal government, as it’s doing in response to the government’s move last May to list the polar bear as threatened.

Whatever the reason, it’s refreshing to see so much international—and mainstream—coverage of an important story that under normal circumstances might not get much play.

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